To Saunter (Mindful Habits & the Writerly Life)

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For a few months now I’ve been involved in a Facebook group called ‘Writers Who Write’ with my mother, older brother, and some close friends. A very original group name conjured up by yours truly. Why complicate it? I wanted to have a casual space with people I know that identify as writers and with those for whom the craft is a vital part of their life’s pursuits. We share articles and personal insights regarding the development and polishing of writerly skills. We also discuss our own experiences with writing–successes and challenges–as we post the work we occasionally publish online. The active members of the group all have hopes of, and current projects, writing a book.

In December, we undertook a 21-day challenge where we committed to always carry a notebook.. I had done this myself for months, jotting down inspiration and ideas, keeping myself organized with reminders and lists of daily to-do’s. It helped so much I felt that challenging my writing mates could be a sly way of getting them to have similar revelations about ‘the notebook doctrine’. Slightly narcissistic of me, and no doubt looking for validation of my own efforts.  We checked in daily and shared various insights on how carrying the notebook was helpful for our creativity and writing practices.

I’ve learned from my choice to identify as a writer that habits are essential not only for consistency, but for keeping the mind fresh, whereby inspiration can occur with greater frequency. The notebook challenge was a lot of fun for all of us, so I searched for other subtle ways for keeping the idea muscles in shape, charged, and healthy. Writing often, with vitality and with confidence, is as much about the lifestyle built around being a writer as it is about the act of writing itself.

When February rolled around, I proposed the 21-day ‘go for walks’ challenge. One where devices would be a ‘no no’. The point was not to be strict, but was to be in the spirit of sauntering, as described in Hendry David Thoreau’s small book Walking. With this activity, we’d be getting out of our routine, allowing the mind to roam and wander outside the confines of what we considered a normal day.

When on these walks, I take special note of the felt experience in both mind and body. I try to be mindful of my gait, pace and breath; and also the things my eyes are drawn to or become focused on. The ‘presence’ I’ve experienced while walking, and the feeling I have afterward is akin to what I’ve found in my practice of seated meditation. I see the world again with curious eyes. My mind ceases from anxiously churning over thoughts. I am reminded that the here and now, the subtle and simple qualities of life, hold the key to contentment. I wonder how I ever manage to forget this essential truth.

Towards the end of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walking’, he states “methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least.” This after observing how often as human beings we “hug the earth”. This I interpreted as people’s tendency to play it safe. The spontaneity and image of someone randomly climbing a tree is perfect. Consider the act of climbing a tree yourself, at this moment. Do you know any adults who’d climb a tree while being publicly observed? Silliness right? And that’s exactly the problem with the cultural self-seriousness of adulthood. Not to say that being an adult–refining our manners towards others and considering our place in the world less selfishly–or that participating in the experiment of civilization is wrong, but it does rob us unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, of our playfulness and curiosity.

When I go walking it is most often along a road. I am lucky enough to be living on a hillside a fair distance from the nearby town. Here the roads are accessible but never busy. Out here, overlooking the valley below, a saunterer can treat the road as though it were a footpath, and there’s no one who’d object.
When I dropped my concern for what a passerby might think, or whether someone might be gazing at me from out of their window (like that is something people normally do), I allowed myself to wander and take time with the smallest of observations. I will take quite a few pictures, but also make a concerted effort at soaking up the vistas and random happenings before acting on the impulse to capture it on the screen of my phone. This used to be very difficult for me.

I even spoke to a herd of cattle one day. They themselves having sauntered up to the cattle grid at a hilltop rise along Shalerock Road. Off to the side I spotted lone horses grazing. They were curious about me, the hairless creature on two legs. The cows, however, were more reticent, backing off a few yards, but did not flee. I slowly approached the grid and asked, “whaddup?”

There is much to see when observing the seemingly mundane from a fresher, even childlike perspective. The things we are more often prone to consider superfluous. Playfulness is what this is, curiosity towards anything and in any place. Walking is not the only way to engage this mindset. Walking is just very simple and instantly available to almost any of us, truly an untapped resource for insight.

I fidget a lot when trying to settle during seated meditation. 5-10 minutes can easily pass before I can consistently focus and re-engage with my breath. I’m committed to improving, training my mind and body to be more “okaywith stillness. When I actually get to “okay”, it’s a genuinely rewarding experience for the very reason that it is challenging. A quick note: “okay” does not mean calm or relaxed necessarily, but more so reaching a presence where mindfully taking note of thoughts, feelings, and sensations is able to occur without so much narrative and egoic background noise.

Thankfully, walking helps get me to a similar state. One of calmness, clarity, curiosity, and at the very least a less judgmental and more open exploration of conscious experience as it unfolds. To be in motion, for me, feels more natural. Paradoxically, movement serves as an anchor for my mind. When I move, it would seem, I can finally be still.

Step outside, get out of your narratives and routines. The simplicity and subtle effectiveness of something like walking often causes such a habit to be overlooked and underappreciated. I have a tendency to intellectualize just about everything, so I hesitate trying to break down any sort of science behind why simple habits work. It’s almost better, for me, that a few of these basics work without me thinking too hard about the ‘why’ of it.  Call it faith, call it fatigue with my normal display of skepticism towards about everything else in life. Sauntering is now vital for keeping me sane, for sparking creative insight, and for maintaining my exploratory spirit. The world can be seen with fresh eyes every day, I know this. The challenge is to remember, and gently bring yourself back to the things that work. Walking is one of those things.

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